Stem cell conundrum: to research or not to research

Criticism of the president’s policy on embryonic stem cell research piqued recently. More than 200 members of Congress, including the Senate’s only doctor, Republican Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist, signed a letter in support of increased stem cell research. In addition, in a speech given at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Nancy Reagan supported the argument that more must be done in the area of stem cell research. President George W. Bush merely appeased his right-wing, anti-abortion base by announcing in 2001 that federal funding would be available for stem cell lines discovered prior to August 2001 but not for stem cell lines created after this date.

This policy has severely hampered efforts in the United States to advance this promising field and must be quickly reversed to allow this nation to remain scientifically competitive with the rest of the world.

Embryonic stem cell research is still in its early stages. It could arguably be several years before potentially positive effects are felt by those who suffer from such debilitating illnesses such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research point to animal studies that have resulted in tumors. While this is the case, one can argue that many advances in science come at a cost, and often trial by error is the only way to achieve great successes.

As Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has stated, 25 years ago the same theme of an unproven science with potentially unintended consequences was said of recombinant DNA. He points out, “Recombinant DNA has led to the development of vaccines, insulin for diabetics and drugs to fight AIDS.” The unknown of regenerative science should not be seen as a limitation, but as a door to progress that can only be unlocked with a government policy allowing the expansion of current stem cell lines.

A negative impact of the president’s policy is the fear that top scientists will conduct their research in foreign countries, effectively putting the United States at a disadvantage in terms of stem cell research and its resulting economic opportunities. As The Boston Globe recently reported, there are already 32 stem cell lines created and available in foreign countries. Only 19 exist in the United States. Scientists, seeking to avoid this political hot-button issue, would simply take their research to a more hospitable country.

A recent response to the Congressional outcry in support of stem cell research from the director of the National Institutes of Health gave supporters fuel for their position. Elias A. Zerhouni acknowledged, “From a purely scientific perspective, more cell lines may well speed some areas of human embryonic stem cell research.” Despite his comment, the White House maintains that President Bush has not changed his views on this issue. Seemingly, the President’s position seems to center around a moral opposition to the destruction of embryos. It is important to point out, however, that many potential embryonic stem cell lines could be developed from embryos that were going to be discarded by fertility clinics. Why can’t stem cell research be seen as a potential “right to life” issue for those suffering from debilitating illnesses?

There is clearly a divide between John Kerry and President Bush on the issue of embryonic stem cell research. In 2001, Sen. Kerry co-sponsored the Stem Cell Research Act and has indicated that, if elected, he would increase funding to the National Institutes of Health and, in particular, stem cell research. In a speech at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Kerry asserted, “This president has put partisan politics above scientific and medical advancement.” Until this political gridlock can be broken, significant advances in stem cell research in this country will be hampered.

In his 2001 address on the stem cell research topic, President Bush stated, “I hope we will always be guided by both intellect and heart, by both our capabilities and our conscience.” Certainly these ideals can still be achieved with a less restrictive government policy on embryonic stem cell research.

Aaron Hill is a sophomore majoring in chemistry.